The complex relationship between 19th-century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot and one of the most famous “hysterics” he treated is charted with intelligent nuance in “Augustine,” an impressive debut for Gallic writer-helmer Alice Winocour. Anchored by two intense, intertwined perfs by veteran Vincent Lindon and relative newcomer Soko, a musician who also composed the pic’s growling, atmospheric score, this period drama offers a coolly febrile study of madness, Victorian sexual politics and power. Fests are likely to treat this well, and the film could pick up patients in need of its cerebral arthouse medicine as a niche release offshore.
First met working as a servant, 19-year-old Augustine (Soko, who played a younger version of Beatrice Dalle in Virginie Despentes’ “Bye Bye Blondie”) has an inexplicable seizure that leaves her writhing and moaning on the floor. Afterward, the right side her body grows insensate, and she can’t open her right eye.
Her cousin Rosalie (Roxane Duran) checks Augustine into Paris’ Salpetriere psychiatric hospital, where mentally ill women are treated. Although their symptoms vary enormously and would be put down to a wide range of psychiatric conditions today, at the time most were simply diagnosed with hysteria, then thought widely to be an exclusively female problem arising from a dysfunction of the uterus.
Stern, ambitious and broodingly handsome Dr. Charcot (Lindon, “Welcome”), who suspects that hysteria arises from a problem in the brain, is an object of veneration for many of the patients who believe he can cure their maladies. He selects only a few of the most interesting cases at a time to examine in front of fellow doctors at his weekly seminars. Possibly by design, Augustine has a dramatic fit that catches Charcot’s attention, and before long she has become his prize patient. Due to her remarkable ability to be hypnotized almost instantly, she is photographed copiously for study and gains a certain fame in the press for her performance-like hysterical displays, evoking comparisons to Sarah Bernhardt and other legit thesps.
Charcot’s wife, Constance (Chiara Mastroianni), an heiress who uses her wealth and influence to help further her husband’s career, senses that Charcot’s fascination with the voluptuous Augustine isn’t strictly medical. Constance uses her contacts to help arrange a vital presentation of Augustine to the Academy of Sciences, which will help bring funding to Salpetriere and Charcot for further research. But as the big day approaches, Augustine’s possessive feelings toward Charcot complicate their relationship, and she comes to realize she, too, has some power, despite her incarceration.
Charcot’s study of hysteria, which directly influenced Freud’s theory of the unconscious, has long been of interest to medical historians, sociologists and feminists, and Winocour’s script lightly evokes this background without resorting to lectures about patriarchy or the medicalization of madness. Direct-to-camera interviews with real-life femme psychiatric patients, telling their own stories but dressed in 1870s garb, are interspersed at intervals, a highly effective means of connecting the dots between mental illness and gender.
Admirably willing to leave much unsaid and let eyes and gestures do the talking, Winocour draws out the intense intimacy and seesawing balance of power and desire between Augustine and Charcot, which will invoke comparisons, probably in “Augustine’s” favor, with David Cronenberg’s similarly themed “A Dangerous Method.” There’s a remarkable scene here in which Augustine and Charcot fondle a pet ape together that could serve as a textbook example of the notion of transference in cinema; indeed, psychoanalytically inclined film studies academics will have a field day with this pic.
Use of digital stock adds a chilly starkness to the mostly monochromatic palette, and other credits are pro but not especially lush, suggesting a modest budget. Soko’s own source music is evocative throughout, but it’s odd that the end credits don’t cite the use of a long piece by composer Arvo Part that’s been heard in several other films.